Lake George Village, NY

Two Forts Recreate Frontier-Age America

New York state’s reconstructed 18th-century Fort William Henry

An infantryman loads his carbine on the parade ground of Fort William Henry, the reconstruction of the 18th-century fort where events fictionalized in the classic novel The Last of the Mohicans took place.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

IN THE EARLY 1820s, when this part of upstate New York was still a wilderness, it received a visit from author James Fenimore Cooper.

As Cooper tramped over earthen mounds near the water’s edge at the southern tip of Lake George, pictures took shape in his mind. Pictures of gallant woodsmen, damsels in distress, noble red men, bloodthirsty savages, honourable soldiers...

He knew that 60 years earlier, in 1757, one of the great atrocities of the French and Indian War—the struggle between the English and French for control of North America—had occurred here, when the French army’s Native American allies had massacred men, women and children.

After examining the location Cooper went home and wrote the story of Fort William Henry. He called it The Last of the Mohicans. Published in 1826, it is still taught in American literature courses, and has been filmed several times, most recently in 1992 with Daniel Day-Lewis as its star.

The original Fort William Henry was destroyed in 1757 after the French captured it. But in the 20th century it was reconstructed and is today, thanks largely to Cooper, a prime tourist attraction.

William Henry is one of two reconstructed forts in this region of the eastern Adirondacks that together provide a primer on military life in pioneer-era America, when this part of the eastern seaboard was truly the frontier of western civilization.

The other is Ticonderoga, 55 kilometres to the north. Originally built by the French as Fort Carillon, it was France’s southernmost outpost in its drive from what is now Quebec. William Henry was England’s northerly bastion. (The English renamed Carillon “Ticonderoga” when they captured it in 1759.)

The forts are staffed by interpreters dressed as French, English and colonial soldiers of the period. Visitors wander through dungeons, kitchens and barracks, and view waxworks manikins of military men, doctors, carpenters and cooks going about their daily business.

At William Henry, guides tell how the French general Louis-Joseph de Montcalm—the same Montcalm who would be defeated by the English on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City in 1759—besieged the fort and forced its commander, Lt.-Col. George Munro, to surrender, promising that the inhabitants would be safe. But Montcalm’s Native American allies, mainly Huron, were furious at being denied scalps and went on a rampage, killing at least 200 people.

To this frame Cooper added characters such as Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas, “the last of the Mohicans,” who broke 19th-century taboos by falling in love with Cora Munro, the daughter of the fort’s commander.

The log-built Fort William Henry was burned down by Montcalm. It was said that he put all the bodies inside and torched the fort as a funeral pyre to them, but 20th-century archeological digs refute this.

Fort Ticonderoga had a longer history, seeing action in the Revolutionary War (1776-1781) before falling into disrepair, its stone walls being used for house-building. Militarily, it was as important as Fort William Henry, although it remains less well known. But then, nobody wrote a classic novel about it.



For more information on the two forts visit their websites, www.fwhmuseum.com and www.fortticonderoga.org.

For information on travel in the Adirondacks region of New York state go to www.visitadirondacks.com.